The empirical research on school choice consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.
Americans expect and demand the right to select their own goods and services in every area other than K-12 education—including everything from food, housing, clothing, transportation, and medical care to magazines, haircuts, dry cleaning, and video games. If the government tried to assign people to live in certain neighborhoods or shop at certain grocery stores, Americans would howl in protest. They even expect and demand choice when it comes to education outside of K-12 schools—everywhere from colleges to trade schools to tutoring services.
But when it comes to K-12 education, the American idea that people should have stewardship over their own lives and choose for themselves rather than have government dictate what they receive is not embodied in public policy.
The arguments typically used to defend this lack of choice are empirically false or poorly reasoned. For example, teachers’ unions claim that choice “drains money” from public schools. But how would Americans respond if they were told that from now on they would have to receive all their medical care from a doctor assigned to them by the government, rather than from their current family doctor, on grounds that their choice to seek care from their current doctor “drains money” from the budget of the doctor chosen by the government?
Meanwhile, the idea that school choice might improve public schools is dismissed as ideological claptrap. In fact, the empirical evidence consistently shows that it is the case, and the reasons are not hard to explain. One reason choice would improve public schools is that it allows parents to find the right particular school for each individual child. Every child is unique and has unique educational needs.
But probably the most important reason school choice would improve public schools is because it gives parents a meaningful way to hold schools accountable for performance. Under the current system, if a school isn’t doing a good job, the only ways to get a better school—purchase private schooling or move to a new neighborhood—are expensive and impractical. These options are especially difficult for low-income and disadvantaged students.
Thus, in the absence of parental choice, schools lack the healthy, natural environment of client empowerment that is essential to producing better performance in most other types of service institutions. Hospitals know they must do a good job or lose patients. Professionals like doctors and lawyers must provide good services or lose clients. Stores must provide good value or lose customers. This system is so critical to keeping institutions mission-focused that we take it completely for granted—everywhere but in K-12 schooling.
It is widely agreed that monopolies generally provide poor quality because nothing bad will happen to them if they don’t serve their clients well. When they get bad service, customers say, “I’ll take my business elsewhere” because they know this is what will prompt better service. They do this to nonprofit institutions the same way they do it to businesses because they know it’s not the presence or absence of profit that creates better performance but the presence or absence of client choice. The failure of education policy to embrace the American principle that people should have stewardship over their own lives and make their own choices is a great hindrance to reform.
One way opinion leaders can rectify this problem is by making the public aware of the large body of empirical research that examines how choice impacts participants, public schools, and the civic community at large.
What the Empirical Research Shows
There is no such thing as a “scientifically right” education policy. Science cannot identify what education policy is most fitting to the intrinsic nature of the human person, or most aligned with America’s ideals of freedom and democratic self-rule. To answer those questions, one needs other kinds of knowledge—knowledge about the nature of human life, the meaning of freedom and democracy, and the historic self-understanding of the American people.
However, abstract ideas and history are not by themselves an adequate basis for public policy. The public hears competing claims about the real-world effects of education policy in the concrete world of the here and now. It wants—and rightly so—to know which claims are true and which are false. That is an empirical question, and addressing such questions is the special right and duty of science.
In a recent report, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” I surveyed the empirical research on school choice. The report provides a thorough overview of what the research has found on five key topics:
- Academic outcomes of choice participants
- Academic outcomes of public schools
- Fiscal impact on taxpayers
- Racial segregation in schools
- Civic values and practices
The evidence points clearly in one direction. Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.
These results are not difficult to explain. School choice improves academic outcomes by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs, and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and respect for the rights of others.
The size of the benefit provided by existing school choice programs is sometimes large, but is usually more modest. This is not surprising because the programs themselves are modest—curtailed by strict limits on the students they can serve, the resources they provide, and the freedom to innovate. Only a universal school choice program, accessible to all students, can deliver the kind of dramatic improvement American schools desperately need in all five of these important areas.
Here are the key findings from the report:
- Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
- Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.
- Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
- Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.
- Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.
Fiscal Impact in Oklahoma
But the fiscal impact pales in comparison to the impact on children’s lives. To see a 10-minute video of lives being changed, visit www.ocpathink.org/videos.
Only Universal School Choice Can Sustain Dramatic Change
Existing school choice programs are hindered in a number of ways, such as: limits on the number of students they may serve; limits on the types of students they may serve; limits on the purchasing power they are allowed to provide; limits on families’ ability to supplement that purchasing power; and limits on how students may be admitted to participating schools.
Ultimately, the only way to make school reform work on a large scale is to break the government monopoly on schooling. The monopoly isn’t just one powerful obstacle to reform among many; it’s what makes all the many obstacles as powerful as they are. The monopoly ensures that no meaningful accountability for performance can occur, except in rare cases as a result of herculean efforts. The monopoly empowers a dense cluster of rapacious special interests resisting all efforts to improve schools.
The monopoly creates an environment where the urgent need for change can’t be made a tangible part of the daily cultural life of the school. Institutional culture in the existing system is hostile not just to this or that reform, but to reform as such, because the monopoly excludes the only institutional basis for making the need for change seem plausible and legitimate: the prospect of losing the institution’s client base and the funding that goes with it. When any institution has a captive client base, support for innovation vanishes.
Reform requires people and institutions to do uncomfortable new things, and change will not occur until discomfort with the status quo becomes greater than the discomfort of the change. An institution with captive clients can continue to function into the foreseeable future, more or less as it always has, without change. Why not just continue doing things in the way that feels comfortable and natural?
Worst of all, the monopoly pushes out educational entrepreneurs who can reinvent schools from the ground up. Only a thriving marketplace that allows entrepreneurs to get the support they need by serving their clients better can produce sustainable innovation.
In any field of human endeavor, whether education or medicine or politics or art or religion or manufacturing or anything else, entrepreneurs who want to strike out in new directions and do things radically differently need a client base. There need to be people who will benefit from the new direction and support it. And that client base must be robust on three dimensions: size, strength, and suffrage. There must be enough supporters, they must have enough ability to provide support, and they must have enough freedom to decide for themselves what to support.
The government school monopoly crowds out this client base. School choice has the potential to solve this problem by providing enough families (size) with enough dollars (strength) and enough choice (suffrage) to support educational entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, existing school choice programs fall short on all three dimensions. Only universal choice can open the door to the full-fledged revolution in schooling America needs for the new century.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” (edchoice.org/WinWin), from which this article is excerpted. Dr. Forster has conducted empirical studies on the impact of school choice programs in Milwaukee, Ohio, Florida, and Texas, as well as national empirical studies comparing public and private schools in terms of working conditions for teachers, racial segregation, and teacher and staff misconduct. He also has conducted empirical studies of other education topics, including charter schools, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. Forster’s research has appeared in the peer-reviewed publications Teachers College Record and Education Working Paper Archive, and his articles on education policy have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Education Next, Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other publications.